Attorneys Discuss Recent Decision Issued By The Georgia Supreme Court Concerning Willful Misconduct in the Workplace
On February 27, 2017, the Georgia Supreme Court, in overruled the Appeals Court's decision Chandler Telecom, LLC v. Burdette, which had permitted an injured worker to recover for injuries suffered at work despite being injured during a dangerous job-related activity that his employer advised him not to perform. The Georgia Supreme Court overturned the case and sent the matter back to the trial court for additional fact findings. The Court's opinion appears to weaken previous court precedent. People injured on the job should contact an experienced and knowledgeable Georgia workers' compensation attorney at Montlick & Associates to learn about their rights and options.
Workers' compensation is a product of statute. At common law, an employer was not liable for a worker's injuries absent a showing of negligence at a minimum on behalf of the employer. The Georgia statute, found in §34-9-1 et seq. of the Georgia Code, as well as many other jurisdictions, use a no-fault system that permits an injured employee to recover damages if injured in a work-related activity, but relieves the worker of the burden to prove the employer committed a wrongful or negligent act. In exchange, the employee's exclusive remedy against his employer is filing a workers' compensation claim under the authority of the statute. Of course, if a third party other than the employer was negligent and contributed or caused the workers' injury, the worker could potentially pursue a workers' compensation claim simultaneously while asserting a personal injury claim against the third party.
Section 17 of the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act permits an employer to deny coverage under certain circumstances. Those circumstances are related to the employee's willful conduct:
• intentionally self-inflicted injury;
• an injury occurring while trying to hurt another employee; or
• deliberate failure or refusal to use a safety feature or perform a duty mandated by law.
The first two circumstances are probably rare in the workplace. The third, on the other hand, may be a fairly common occurrence. Workers must guard against falling into the latter category lest they lose out on the valuable benefits conferred upon them by Georgia's Workers' Compensation Act. Therefore, Georgia employees must be aware of the legal definition of "willful misconduct."
The Georgia Supreme Court reiterated the definition in this latest decision. The Court stated that "willful misconduct" is:
• an intentional act deliberately performed knowing that a serious injury can occur;
• an act performed with "wanton and reckless disregard" of the possible result; or
• Violating the law intentionally or rule of conduct which must be obeyed by the employee without discretion.
A very strict reading of the definition of "willful misconduct" could lead to a harsh application of the rule thereby eliminating the possibility of financial recovery for any failure to follow a rule. Georgia appeals courts recognized that possible problem and expounded on the rule. Georgia courts have held that, as a general rule, a simple violation of instruction, rule, command, or law and while performing a dangerous action that is obvious is not willful misconduct. The Workers' Compensation Board and reviewing courts must examine whether, while performing the act, the employee knew that the conduct could lead to serious injury or disregard the potential that it might result in serious injury by violating a rule, law, or employer directive. The court does not need to find that the act was "criminal or quasi-criminal" as some courts have ruled.
The Georgia Supreme Court remanded the decision back to the Workers' Compensation Board to explore the worker's state of mind when he was injured. The Court mandated that the Board make a ruling whether the worker committed an intentional act or acted with reckless disregard of the possible outcome while performing the hazardous act.
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